The problem with holding and reaching Millennials is not all on the shoulders of the church. They may be the most self-contradictory generation to have existed. They are “extraordinarily relational and, at the same time, remarkably self-centered.” Kinnaman characterizes them as, “We want to change the world! Look at me! Let’s make a difference together! I want to be famous!”
They want mentoring; they want to find their own way. They want guidance; they want to be in control. They want leaders who authentically model Christianity and uphold moral standards – the same standards they violate, secretly and selectively, and yet moral standards that they assert as important. They want attention; they don’t want to be a target. They want ceremony; they don’t want to be bored. They want explanations, teaching, information; they don’t want a talking-head. They are looking for authentic Christians who they can trust and respect; they are irreverent and distrustful, wanting to be peers with everyone, deferring to few, if any.
They want a church where they can learn – while talking. They want to be Christians, first, before becoming one. They want to ‘try it on,’ to buy it, unpack it, test it, and be able to send it back and get a refund – as they do with Amazon. They want leaders, as long as they can influence them. They want standards, but exemptions for themselves, at least on occasion, from the standards. They want to fit in – but be the exception. They want to be involved in service, and in a church that is serving, and yet, they are not sure the church is necessary as a service agency. In recent years, the church has stepped up its efforts at compassion, in the US and abroad. Yet, half the nation believes that disaster relief, compassion efforts, food and shelter provision, care for those in crisis, would happen without the church. Sixty-percent of those outside the church believe that charitable work would continue without Christians, and that same view is held by 17 percent of practicing believers.
Millennials are drowning in knowledge. But, they “lack discernment” on the application of that knowledge – they lack understanding and wisdom. They are a ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ group – without a place to ask their questions. Older generations, especially builders and boomers, see the ‘why?’ question as disrespectful – “just do it, don’t ask why!” Here is the tension. Obedience, blind faith, is a value to mature believers and one that all true Christians must learn. It is faith driven by trust. And trust is deeper than faith. This is the heart of the problem. With Millennials, trust is a major issue. Just getting to a place in which they see the principle of trust and obedience is a major step forward, and that is only possible out of relational discipleship. Wisdom, Proverbs says, builds the house. Understanding strengthens it. Knowledge furnishes it. This generation needs to have the house rebuilt. It needs a new wineskin. Their generational perspective, their set of knowledge, doesn’t fit the existing house. They don’t believe they can live in the house we call the church. They see the need for the church to change. Those in the church call for them to change. Some of the presuppositions of both are right and some are wrong!
This is a challenge. Millennials are accustomed to speed – but wisdom requires patience. They are a sound-bite culture – but biblical truth is often grasped only by wrestling with it. They have their exalted opinion. They operate from their own absolute, but a reorientation of values is a personal revolution. It is a work of the Spirit. It is not left-brain engagement. It is heart transformation. Millennials mirror a generally held notion by 75 percent of Americans, that “a person can live a pretty good and decent life without being a Christian.” Christianity as morality has become the prevailing sentiment, not Christianity as a transformational relationship with Christ. The culture no longer knows who and what Christianity is – and it is doubtful that the church gets it either.
It is not merely that Millennials don’t have the patience to process through the maze of information, past knowledge and understanding, to wisdom. Pastors too, must have the ability and desire to invest time in discipleship. Thom Rainer’s studies indicate that 77 percent of Millennials seek their parent’s advice regularly. That’s encouraging. Perhaps, the church must learn to be less of an institution and more like a family; and its pastors and elders, less like non-profit executives, and more like fathers.
The blog is an excerpt from the upcoming book by P. Douglas Small, Millennials: The Young Adult Harvest That We Dare Not Miss. Pre-order your copy today>
 Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 29.
 Ibid, 31.
 Kinnaman and Lyons, Good Faith, 33.
 Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 57.